This weekend, Adam Driver hosted the Saturday Night Live season premiere, featuring musical guest Kanye West, whom many fans expected to release new music by the end of the night.
West and Lil Pump performed their latest hit, “I Love It,” a single that has unexpectedly salvaged West’s commercial fortunes in the wake of the disastrous rollout for his most recent solo album, Ye, released only four months ago. SNL and West had scheduled the performance to promote the rapper’s next solo album, Yandhi, which has yet to materialize as a commercial release; West hasn’t publicly explained, or confirmed, what Yandhi even is, exactly. The initial project’s release date, September 29—scheduled to coincide with West’s SNL performance—came and went without fruition. Two days later, Kim Kardashian West announced the project’s new release date, November 23, presaging two additional months of promotional bedlam surrounding a late-career Kanye West album.
West’s fans have grown accustomed to such uncertainty. Two years ago, he played the SNL stage to perform songs from his then-forthcoming album, The Life of Pablo, a release that bedeviled listeners with logistical chaos, promotional trolling, and great angst. Two years later, with the release of Ye and, soon, Yahndi, West has escalated his trolling through whimsical, inarticulate support for President Donald Trump. Following SNL’s on-air sign-off, West sung and spoke about partisan politics, race relations, and Trump. “If I was concerned about racism, I would’ve moved out of America a long time ago,” West said. Rachel Dratch, standing behind West, rolled her eyes. The audience booed.
West’s reactionary rebranding coincides with his career low point, defined by musical stagnation, critical exhaustion, and commercial decline. “I Love It” is, undeniably, a hit record. It’s bigger and better than any song from his vanity label’s messy May-June 2018 slate of album releases, which included Ye. But “I Love It” also sounds apocryphal: It’s good, but inessential, so devoid of West’s distinct musical qualities that it pales in critical comparison with his other chart-topping songs. “I Love It” is conspicuously new.
On The Life of Pablo, West included an a cappella ditty, “I Love Kanye,” about disillusionment among his fans: The old Kanye represented a classic, nostalgic, sample-driven style of hip-hop, in contrast with West’s new fondness for nightclub grooves and trap hedonism. But now, the distinction between old Kanye and new Kanye has become far more fraught and comprehensive, encompassing his musical style, his temperament, his affiliations, and his political pronouncements. Following his SNL speech, West sent a few tweets advocating for the repeal of the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery. The Washington Post deduced West’s support for revising the 13th Amendment to also prohibit prison labor. West applauded the newspaper’s interpretation in a tweet where he shared the article; but this isn’t the first time he’s mischaracterized American slavery only to resent the literal interpretations of his own remarks. The old Kanye was a rebellious virtuoso. The new Kanye is a goofy hack.
West has self-consciously made it impossible for much of his earlier fan base to root for him these days. His friends have disavowed him, his celebrity peers now criticize him, and his longtime fans have begun to flee. In the wake of this exodus, West’s fandom has transformed to prominently include reactionary grifters, racist trolls, and the president himself. Inevitably, West’s newfound fandom includes listeners who were once inclined to disregard George W. Bush’s most infamous critic as a frivolous Hollywood liberal. The right-wing figures who embrace West now, such as Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro, don’t appear to enjoy any of his music; they’ve embraced the rapper’s political significance and largely disregarded his art. West doesn’t seem to mind. He’s recently toured his hometown, Chicago, accompanied by Owens, who has become the rapper’s emissary to Fox News.
Initially, Kanye West billed his reactionary heel turn as an exercise in “free thinking.” He seemingly meant for his occasional comments about slavery to underscore the loyalty of black voters to liberal orthodoxy and the Democratic Party. He meant to lead a fandom that always took him a little too seriously to the logical endpoint of his self-obsessed rants—a vapid and delusional oblivion. So West has found freedom in spouting College Republican clichés; he’s found strength in his weak and inexplicable thinking. His right-wing admirers have made him into a stooge. They’ve seized upon his vulnerability and exploited his popular appeal to diversify the credibility of an exclusionary political movement. They’ve recontextualized his classic petulance, transforming hardcore Kanye West fandom into an unbearable experience, if not an indefensible commitment. It’s his choice and his personal journey. But West’s indifference to racism, among national agonies, has rendered him difficult to watch and impossible to root for, even after several years of flattering his ignorance in other, more forgivable forms and contexts. In November, there’s new music—new Kanye. Unfortunately, the performance is getting old.